Sunday, March 16, 2014

Unfolding Pictures: A Pair of “Pen Work” Hand Screens, 1800-1825

Hand Screen
Wood, Pen Work, Lacquer
The Victoria & Albert Museum
As we know, hand screens (or face screens) served a dual purpose. Not only were they employed to protect a lady’s makeup from the heat of the fire, but also were displayed on a mantelpiece as decoration.

In the early Nineteenth Century, Chinese-inspired designs dominated the style of face screens which were made of wood, upholstered card or papier mache. This pair of wooden hand screens dates between 1800 and 1825 and is an excellent example of Pen Work.

Pen Work was often used to replicate the look of black Chinese lacquer with gilded adornment. Chinoiserie items were often quite expensive. Pen Work allowed for the look of these dear objects without the cost. All that was needed was a little skill.
The Victoria & Albert Museum
A scalloped, thin piece of light-colored wood was painted black, leaving the areas of the desired pattern unpainted. The pattern was filled-in with Indian ink and fine quill pen. Then, the entire screen was varnished. The unpainted parts of the wood would take on a golden hue which only became richer over time. After a few years, the finished product was almost indistinguishable from actual Chinese lacquer with gilt designs.

This technique was not just used in the making of hand screens, but was a staple of the decorative arts and furniture making. Such screens weren’t considered fashion accessories in the way that traditional folding fans were, but rather, were considered to be furnishings—part of the décor and usefulness of a room.

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